With a general election not far away, British politicians are already busy announcing various election promises with the aim of wooing potential voters. The topic of immigration is always a hotly debated one, and politicians will no doubt be compelled to talk about their party’s immigration policies in the coming weeks. It’s a topic that is never very far from the headlines at any time, kept constantly on the boil by a willing media. In the last general election in 2005 the Tory leader, Michael Howard, decided to make immigration one of his prime election issues. “It's not racist to impose limits on immigration: are you thinking what we're thinking?” the Conservative Party’s election posters said. Howard’s populist campaign was one of the most anti-immigration ones for a long time, and in the end it was a loser. Howard employed Lynton Crosby, former Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s election strategist. Crosby’s dog-whistle type of politics may have worked in Australia, but it boomeranged in the UK. This is not to say immigration is a non-issue, for Britain’s antipathy toward foreigners is legendary, but a closer look at its history reveals a nation that has been shaped, and indeed enriched, by many waves of immigration over millennia. I have finished reading Robert Winder’s fascinating book “Bloody Foreigners”, which I thoroughly enjoyed, chronicling the achievements of Britain’s many immigrants over the years.
Britain was once connected to continental Europe thousands of years, and Homo sapiens from the south simply wandered here unchecked. Then around 7000BC melting ice caps raised the sea level and water broke through the fragile chalk bridge connecting Dover to the continent. Homo sapiens had advanced much more by then and would have continued to come to Britain. They were followed by the Beaker people from the Rhine Valley, the Celts from east of the Alps, the Romans, the Germanic tribes (Saxons, Angles and Jutes), and the Vikings. It was the Romans who introduced Christianity. A divided country – Saxon in the south and west, Danish in the north and east – it took a Danish monarch – King Cnut – in 1016 to unite the country. The Norman Conquest in 1066 was actually a war between two Danish tribes: the Normans of France and the Anglo-Danish heirs of Cnut. The Normans did a whole scale corporate takeover of Britain, laying the foundation of the British class system and erecting its chief pillar: the primacy of land ownership as the path to power. The lasting legacies of the Normans are the institutions: the government, the aristocracy, the church and the army. Many of the great castles and cathedrals in Britain were built by them.
During the centuries of Norman rule among the most significant of the new immigrants were the Jews. Due to the church’s insistence that usury was a sin, Jews were invited to perform this important service. Initially they were welcomed by the rulers, given special privileges and guarantees, and they prospered due to their near-monopoly position. They often charged high interest and the natives hated them because they were rich, but slowly the Jews’ growing wealth was plundered in a series of random and greedy taxes, or ‘tallages’. The crusades sharpened animosity toward them even further, as they were seen as infidels, and resentment of the Jews hardened to official disdain. In the thirteenth century Henry III not only plundered them but forced them of their land, which they had acquired in lieu of debts. There were some terrible atrocities, such as the murder of some four hundred Jews on Palm Sunday in 1263, in London, and up to a thousand Jews in 1264. Eventually in 1290, in an act that would resonate across Europe and be echoed by continental monarchs, Edward I expelled the Jews from Britain.
The Black Death in 1348 wiped out nearly one third of the English population. Immigration was encouraged in official circles in order to fill the gaping hole in the labour market. “But if the expert immigrants – the weavers, cobblers, glass blowers and brewers – were sponsored and welcomed by the authorities, they too faced resentment from those less advantageously placed on the social ladder.” The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 led to many attacks on foreigners. But medieval life was rough, and eruptions of violence were relatively brief, punctuated by long periods when no animosity is recorded. As a new Protestant nation, England attracted persecuted Protestants from Europe, mainly from the Low Countries. They were by definition self-reliant, industrious, and independent minded. Protestants rested only on Sundays, while Catholics took a two-day break each week. These qualities later became harnessed into one of the western world’s most powerful characteristics: the Protestants work ethic.
Religious liberty was the overriding reason why many Protestants came. The Jews also made a come-back, fleeing persecution on the continent. They were granted permission to pursue their religion, at first discreetly, but later in public. In 1663 Samuel Fortrey wrote a book in which he stated four reasons why migrants wanted to come to Britain: 1) it was an obliging and temperate land; 2) English law was relatively fair and provided some protection to the individual; 3) England gave newcomers the chance to make a fortune; 4) it offered religious sanctuary. The Huguenots, who fled Catholic France, were a vibrant addition to English life, and helped transform an agricultural economy into an industrial one.
When Queen Anne didn’t produce an heir, England’s leaders chose her closest living Protestant relative, the Elector of Hanover - George I - as her successor. Eighteenth century society received a fresh injection of new blood, in the form of George I’s inner circle as well as many German businessmen, bankers, scholars and artists. Later as Prussia expanded west and south, some two hundred thousand Germans left their war-ravaged country and fled, mainly to North America but also to Britain. They achieved prominent positions in business, finance and industry. Paul Reuter, the son of a Rabbi, started a company that became the leading supplier of international news, primarily financial information, to Britain’s newspapers. There were many German or German-descended bankers in the City: Barings, Grotes, Samuel Montagu, Rothschilds, and the mightiest of them all, Sir Ernest Cassel. Many of the Germans were actually Jews. “Under English law it was still necessary for everyone wishing to naturalise as British to take a Christian sacrament. For the devout this was intolerable, but for a large number of nineteenth-century immigrants it was no great deterrent.” Benjamin Disraeli was Britain’s first Jewish prime minister.
By the time the slave trade was abolished in 1807, “Britain had snatched and thrashed, bought and sold more than two and a half million men and women (mainly men) into the plantation infernos in eleven thousand ships.” The profits were enormous, without which it is unlikely Britain could have mustered the resources to invade and secure India, or power industrialisation. Slavery and racism enforced each other, and for the first time Britons came to think of themselves as ‘white’. Although slavery dwindled racism did not. Nevertheless, the abolition of the slave trade did boost Britain’s image as the “moral leader of the civilised world”. Political refugees, like Giuseppe Mazzini, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, unwelcome in Europe, found a shelter in Britain where there was more individual freedom. Marx and Engels’ historic work – from the Communist Manifesto to Das Kapitol – was to a large extent a critique of British capitalism, at a time when Britain was enjoying an explosion of industrial activity. In the nineteenth century there were other immigrants too from Italy and Ireland. Few immigrants have been less welcome than the Irish, and there were plenty of anti-Irish riots, but by the end of the nineteenth century they had more or less entered the mainstream of British life.
As the British Empire expanded so too did a feeling of British superiority. “Partly it was the very ease of the imperial conquest which confirmed in the minds of Britons the concept of inferior people.” At its largest, in 1914, the empire covered 12.7 million square miles, of which the UK itself accounted for less than 1%. Surely this ‘proved’ that white Europeans were born to rule, and dark natives born to serve? “Very few people knew what went on in the colonies. They were happy to go along with the contorted logic of racist thinking, which insisted that the subjugated populations were too dim for cerebral work, yet simultaneously capable of fearsome cunning.” Religion, science, philosophy and even poetry joined hands to encourage racist thought. A racial pecking order was developed with whites at the top and blacks at the bottom, just above the animals. These ideas flowed naturally from Darwin’s recently formulated theory of evolution. By the mid-nineteenth century, when the ‘lower orders’ had the audacity to rebel against their ‘superiors’, Britain reacted with righteous indignation. “The Indian Mutiny of 1857 was seen as the worst form of ingratitude against the civilising empire-builders. And a few years later in 1865, a similar uprising in Jamaica was put down with unprecedented savagery.” Nineteenth- century Britain was not a good place to be dark-skinned or foreign. “Foreigners” declared the Truth magazine in 1893, “are in fact deceitful, effeminate, irreligious, immoral, unclean and unwholesome.”
After the Suez Canal was cut in 1869, people from the east began filtering to England. The shipping companies were quite fond of their Asiatic Lascars and coolies as they worked harder, for less pay, and were not as keen on drunken brawls as their local counterparts. Nearly a third of men who fought for Britain in the First World War were from the colonies, mainly India, yet the war is remembered as an act of pure British sacrifice. After the war the Indian men were shooed off home. The passport came into use in 1915, which gave governments a new weapon to control migration. However, the number of African, Chinese and Indian men working for shipping companies continued to grow. Some Indian activists began to surface in public life: Uphadhaya, Shapuri Saklatava, and Krishna Menon.
Things got harder for Britain’s Jews as anti-Semitism grew all over Europe. There were marches and rallies, including one notable running fight along Cable Street in east London, but persecution on this scale was no deterrent to those fleeing the far worse oppressions in Nazi Germany. One third of Germany’s Jews managed to escape before the borders were closed, and inevitably this was the third most able to leave. Some of Britain’s well known shops were started by Jewish immigrants: Marks & Spencer, Moss Bros, Burton and Tesco. They started from very humble circumstances, just running a market stall or a rag-and-bone business, but successfully built up their businesses over time. With their growing clout in the higher echelons of power, Zionists such as Chaim Weizmann were able to lobby for a Jewish state.
As in the First World War Britain summoned its colonial subjects to arms in the Second World War. The Indian Army supplied three million men. Many Poles, squeezed between Hitler to the west and Stalin to the east, came to Britain. They fought valiantly for Britain, and this was recognised by Churchill who felt they were “a special case” and offered them settlement. This was the first time a major group of immigrants were formally welcomed, embraced and given assistance. After the war some 345,000 European nationals were recruited by the Foreign Labour Committee to rebuild a war ravaged country.
In the decades that followed many migrants, first from the Caribbean, then from partitioned India, Africa and Hong Kong made their way to Britain. The empire had been widely resented, but also –despite everything – admired. In Gandhi’s words Britain was “the land of philosophers and poets, the very centre of civilisation.” Nehru’s years in Harrow had left him with a keen regard for English manners. “In my likes and dislikes I was perhaps more an Englishman than an Indian,” he wrote. “I returned to India as prejudiced in favour of England and the English as it is possible.” It was financial hardship that prodded the newly liberated peoples to head for England. There was, however, no assistance given to the new arrivals as was forthcoming for the Poles, Czechs, European volunteers and even prisoners of war. Thrown into an unfriendly labour market and a tougher housing market, they inevitably clustered in certain locales.
Among the first Indians to come to Britain were the Eurasians or Anglo-Indians. They were followed by the Sikhs, fleeing a partitioned Punjab, and then people displaced by the construction of the Mangla Dam in Mirpur, Pakistan. Unlike the West Indians, who felt they were British before they came, the Indians and Pakistanis were keen to uphold their cultural traditions. Anti-immigrant feeling, particularly toward non-white immigrants, increased toward the end of the 1950s when the post-war reconstruction boom came to an end. There were ugly scenes in Nottingham, Shepherd’s Bush and Notting Hill. Politicians too easily succumbed to the idea that immigrants were to blame, with little concern for the bullying behaviour of the locals, and police were convinced that the best way to stop violence was to send them back home.
Britain did its best to deter expelled East African Asians, but in the end admitted many of them in anyway. Enoch Powell said Britain must be “mad, literally mad” to permit such an unhealthy influx. “Like the Roman,” he said, “I see the Tiger flowing with much blood.” It didn’t take long for the Indians and Pakistanis to effect sharp changes in the urban landscape and the national lifestyle. Asian owned corner shops sprang up everywhere. Many Asians became prosperous and prominent figures, but the most common experience was social exclusion. In the East End of London daily life for Bangladeshis and Pakistanis was torrid, with the far right National Front inciting much violence. There was also trouble in Southall, which climaxed in the election campaign of 1979 when the National Front organised a meeting in the town hall. The Chinese immigrants, who came mainly from Hong Kong, dispersed much more sparsely across the country, setting up takeaways and fish and chip shops, and faced much less hostility. There were also a large influx of Europeans, including Irish and Cypriots, but they were hardly noticed. At any other time, things could have been quite different.
On ‘World in Action’ Margaret Thatcher said, “Some people have felt swamped by immigrants.” “They’ve seen the whole character of their neighbourhoods change.” Soon after she came to power her government acted quickly to stop an influx of Boat People and a mass migration of Hong Kong citizens. The immigration rules were tightened even further so that only people of demonstrably “British descent” could be considered for settlement. Throughout the 1980s, like the decade before, racist incidents were so common that they “ceased to be news, until the determination of Stephen Lawrence’s parents provoked a front-page search for the murderers of their son (led by the Daily Mail, unusually) and pricked Britain’s conscience.” This was a turning point and there was a major bureaucratic effort to oppose racist violence in theory.
In 1986 the publication of Salman Rushdie’s book “The Satanic Verses” made immigration again a national concern. Anti-racist politics had already made deep inroads into public life, and there were laws protecting the rights of immigrants, but the situation was the kind that opponents of multiculturalism had feared might come to pass. It highlighted there was a new element in the social landscape, one which had no desire to ‘blend in’ or adapt to British ways: fundamentalist Islam. This made people brood on a more literal definition of ‘tolerance’: the willingness to put up with things they did not necessarily like.
Throughout the 1990s the asylum system was so overwhelmed that the British public came to believe all migrants were false, none had a right to be here, and there was pressure on the government to get tough. The British National Party began agitating again. “These foreign spongers were given favourable treatment and precedence over honest Brits,” they declared. “They were stealing our houses, our birthright and our jobs.” In fact, asylum seekers amounted to only a fraction of the people coming to Britain. Thousands more travelled perfectly legally, on tourist, student or business visas, and then simply overstayed, drifting out of reach of law enforcement agencies. Given that these illegal immigrants have no access to either social services or healthcare, no employment rights and no leverage in the housing market, it is unlikely they are here to stay. According to some guesses the illegal economy is worth some eight billion pounds per year. Employers didn’t stop hiring; they just stopped declaring.
Today the general opinion about immigration is not much different than in the past, with renewed calls to tighten immigration rules even further. The long sequence of political reforms since 1962 has been nothing but a wholehearted attempt to restrict immigration, especially coloured immigration. It’s now extremely difficult for coloured immigrants to enter the UK legally. They are not generally taking other people’s jobs, but doing jobs in the so-called 3-D category: dirty, dangerous and difficult. Migrants have kept inflationary pressures down, being willing to tolerate low wages. With an increasingly aging population it will be hard for Britain to underwrite a solid pension system if the labour force is not replenished with younger workers. If it were true immigration is economically harmful then America would be minnow, not a superpower. Francis Walker, superintendent of the US census in 1880 and 1890, wrote a hundred years ago that it was time to halt the exodus from Europe. These people, he said, were “beaten men from beaten races, representing the worst failures in the struggle for existence.” This massive misjudgement is echoed in Britain today.
I do recognise that Britain cannot allow unlimited immigration. The country wouldn’t be able to cope. Strains on social services, social tension and also criminal activity have to be taken into account in deciding how many and what types of people are allowed in. Sometimes they are fleeing natural disasters, political oppression, religious persecution, failing crops or internal conflict. The tabloid newspapers, and an increasingly media savvy anti-immigrant lobby, are all too eager to view immigrants not as individuals but as numbers. The tabloids not only report discord but often sow it.
Looking at all the different immigrants who have come to Britain it’s clear some groups have clearly been more successful than others. The Jews, Huguenots, Indians and Chinese have done very well. Others like the Palantines and the Gypsies were not successful, mainly because they lacked the urban skills required to thrive in British society, and unfortunately for them they got deported. Ultimately it seems that those who bring with them the most useful skills and who can adapt quickly are the ones who thrive. Britain lends a certain degree of leeway and protection for them to do so. There are very few countries in the world that would provide a flat, a school, a hospital and some petty cash for refugees, but Britain does this. This is often more a source of shame than of pride. And I wholeheartedly agree with Winder’s statement that “immigration is, after all, a compliment, a tribute to our opportunity-rich economy, our humane (if overstretched) social services, our historic civil liberties, our rickety but ancient reputation for fairness and justice.”